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Philadelphia: A Rough-And-Tumble Town Puts on Its Best Face for the Democratic National Convention

Few cities embody nation's history so much

Philadelphia City Hall as seen from Broad Street. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Philadelphia City Hall as seen from Broad Street. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Few American cities embody the nation’s history as much as Philadelphia, the birthplace of the Constitution, home to the Liberty Bell, site of the first Republican presidential nominating convention and, this year, another groundbreaking event: the nomination of a woman at the top of a major party’s presidential ticket.  

It’s also a tough town that lionizes its contribution to cuisine, the cheesesteak; adores fictional boxer Rocky Balboa so much it placed a statue of him at the Philadelphia Art Museum; suffers the scars of brutal racial tension; and is home to such raucous sports fans that the old Veterans Stadium, once home to football’s Eagles and baseball’s Phillies, had its own jail. And they once even booed Santa Claus.  

By the time Hillary Clinton accepts the nomination of the Democratic Party on July 28, Philadelphia’s political pageantry will be in full bloom.  

Pennsylvania is a perennial swing state, toughly contested every four years, even though Democratic presidential candidates have won here in every election since 1992.  

In addition to the presidential race, the Keystone State features one of the most competitive Senate races, where Democrat Katie McGinty, a Philadelphia native, is looking to unseat incumbent Republican Patrick J. Toomey in a race that will help determine the Senate majority.  

There is some symmetry to the Clinton and McGinty campaigns. Clinton would be the first woman president. McGinty would be Pennsylvania’s first woman senator.

A heavily Demoratic city

The city itself is heavily Democratic, represented in Congress for years by Chaka Fattah (until he was indicted in June on corruption charges and resigned, leaving north and west Philly temporarily without a House member) and Robert A. Brady, as well as newcomer Brendan F. Boyle.  

The suburbs are split. Redistricting in 2012 made three swing districts friendlier to the GOP: those represented by Republicans Ryan A. Costello, Patrick Meehan and Michael G. Fitzpatrick.  

Fitzpatrick’s retirement plans provide Democrats with an opening, but Costello and Meehan are cruising to re-election — missed opportunities for Democrats as they scramble to retake the House.  

Democrats and Republicans have gathered here a total of nine times, from the first GOP convention ever, when the Republicans nominated John Fremont as their first standard-bearer in 1856, to 2000, when the GOP came to Philadelphia to nominate George W. Bush.  

It’s easy to see why it’s a popular gathering point. There is the historical symbolism of holding a political gathering in the same city where the Founding Fathers hammered out the infrastructure of the American government.  

It’s an easy plane, train or automobile trip for almost one-third of the U.S.  

It’s big and has the hotels, restaurants and venues like convention centers, sporting arenas and public transportation to handle large gatherings.  

“We’ve been doing big events in Philly for quite some time,” Mayor Jim Kenney said at a National Press Club event in late June. “We just had the pope, which was a huge, huge, unbelievably difficult-to-manage event,” added Kenney, referring to last year’s visit by Pope Francis, which attracted hundreds of thousands of visitors. Kenney’s been through it before. He was on the city council in 2000.  

The city will also be hosting PoliticalFest, a multi-venue jubilee, giving the non-convention crowd a connection to the event.  

“There’ll be a lot of history of politics, a lot of history of the city,” says Brady, whose district follows the Delaware River through town. He has long chaired the Philadelphia Democratic City Committee.  

The congressman plans to distribute his own “Brady Guide” to the city, a compilation of what he “and a lot of dear friends” think are the restaurants, delis and attractions that define the City of Brotherly Love.  

Cheerleading aside, the city has taken its lumps, and some are still smarting.

Racial tensions

Racial tension boiled over in the 1970s and 1980s, manifesting in armed standoffs between Philadelphia police and the radical civil rights group MOVE. In 1985, the police fire-bombed MOVE’s West Philadelphia base, which led to the destruction of 61 homes and a big chunk of the neighborhood. Lawsuits dragged on for years.  

One of MOVE’s most prominent supporters, former Black Panther and journalist Mumia Abu-Jamal, was convicted in 1982 of the murder of white police officer Daniel Faulkner. Abu-Jamal was sentenced to death but eventually resentenced to life in prison in 2011.  

His case became a cause celebre, with Abu-Jamal’s supporters asserting his innocence and accusing the city power structure of racism, and prosecutors and those sympathetic to the police and Faulkner demanding Abu-Jamal’s execution.  

A visit to one of Philadelphia’s culinary landmarks, Geno’s, in South Philly, features a “Path of Honor” for fallen cops, including Faulkner, and a sign on the counter there reflects ongoing cultural tensions: “This is America. ‘Speak English.’”  

Other cheesesteak shops, appalled and perhaps sensing a marketing opportunity, go the other way. A sign at Steaks on South, for instance, displays this message: “Feel free to order in any language. We will gladly serve you, with brotherly love!”  

Philadelphia sports bring something out in their fans, who have a reputation as the roughest around.  

The incident that best illustrates it is from December 1968, when Eagles fans booed Santa Claus. On Dec. 15, 1968, the Eagles were finishing up a terrible season on a cold day in a stadium filled with snow.  

The team had organized a Christmas halftime show, but they had a problem. The man they had booked to play Santa didn’t show. Organizers spotted Frank Olivo, a fan who came to the game in a homemade Santa outfit. They asked him to fill in.  

Fellow fans were having none of it. They booed, then pelted him with snowballs.  

“The fans were in such a bad mood, none of us wanted to see Santa Claus to begin with!” former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, a former Philadelphia mayor and ardent Eagles fan, said in an ESPN documentary.  

Olivo took it in stride. “They’re not booing me,” he told ESPN. “They’re just booing Santa Claus. They’re booing everything!’”  

That’s Philly: the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, the cheesesteak. And a Santa who gets run off a football field.  

“Expect a good time,” says Brady.

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